What to Look For in a Patient Scheduling System

By PokitDok Team,

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Patient scheduling has come a long way from the days of paper calendars and appointment books. Today, a patient scheduling system can integrate with nearly every other aspect of a medical practice, making it easier to manage not only time, but also money and quality of care.

A centralized scheduling system can help standardize practices, minimize lost revenues, and improve patient satisfaction and care, according to HSG director M. Davis Creech. Today's patient scheduling systems can reach far beyond the calendar to address payments, management, and many other aspects of a healthcare practice.

Here, we look at some of the key features and tools of a powerful, thoughtfully designed patient scheduling system.

Automated Schedule Reminders

Patient no-shows cost US healthcare providers an estimated $150 billion each year, according to JP Medved at Capterra. In one extreme case, 14,000 no-shows in a single year ended up costing one clinic a million dollars.

Automated schedule reminders are an easy way to help reduce the rate of patients who don't appear for their scheduled appointments. When integrated with the scheduling system, these schedule reminders push automatically to the patient's device of choice, making it easier for patients to remember their appointments without requiring any extra tasks from office staff, Nate Comstock writes at Advisory Board.

In addition to reminders, many patients need prompt attention. "In many cases, when a consumer needs care, they need it right away," says Dave Kriesand, vice president of consumer experience at Banner Health. "Having tools that easily match a provider to the consumer's preference makes access easier."

Open-access or same-day scheduling can make it more convenient for patients to schedule appointments, while a system designed to manage this approach can make scheduling and payments easier for the practice to manage, notes SCI Solutions CMO Jamie Gier.

About 52 percent of medical practices currently use one or more communication methods to remind patients of upcoming appointments, according to industry reporter Jacqueline LaPointe. Just under 30 percent call patients to remind them, while fewer than 5 percent rely on text messaging or emails alone.

The right patient scheduling system, however, can integrate multiple methods to make it easier to reach all patients.

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Online Booking and Cancellation (Within Limits)

Allowing patients to schedule appointments online provides a level of convenience that patients-as-consumers increasingly demand.

According to Arash Asli at Yocale, 90 percent of customers want the convenience of online appointment requests or appointment scheduling, and 64 percent of patients are expected to use these services when they're available.

An online system allowing patients to request or schedule appointments saves time for office staff and helps patients remember appointments by allowing them to choose times convenient for them. It can also help reduce no-show rates by controlling when patients can cancel online, Bob La Loggia at AppointmentPlus says.

For instance, your system may allow patients to schedule appointments online and to cancel them online, but only within 48 hours. A well-designed patient scheduling system can be set up to prevent patients from cancelling online within a certain time frame, but still allow office staff to manage appointments within that time frame.

Making Payments Easier

Treating patients as consumers and healthcare as a business puts the onus on patients to understand pricing and to shop for the best prices available whenever they can. In a sector as complex and personalized as healthcare, or course, this search can be difficult. According to Kari Paul at MarketWatch, only about 1 percent of healthcare consumers use price transparency tools online.

Some insurance companies have begun offering incentives for patients to shop around, according to Blue Cross NC chief growth officer John Roos. But pitted against the desire to save money is the desire of patients to see doctors and practices they know and trust.

The answer? An online scheduling system that manages financial data, as well.

For instance, a scheduling system that incorporates insurance and payment information from major insurance companies can help patients predict how much they're likely to spend during their visit, before they make an appointment. This ability to shop, schedule and pay online is convenient for the patient, and it engenders trust. An online appointment system can even be configured to accept payments at the time the appointment is made, streamlining the check-in process and helping practices capture payments up front.

Perhaps the strangest effect of price comparison tools integrated with a scheduling system is that they don't encourage patients to spend less, according to Slate's Helaine Olen. In fact, a 2016 JAMA study indicated that spending actually increases when patients know ahead of time what the final bill will look like. Patients prioritize access and communication when they choose a doctor -- two things that a price comparison and pre-pay option provide.

Whether or not patients actually spend more, the option for them to pay in advance and to understand where that money will go can help practices capture more revenue by mitigating  some common causes that can suppress revenue: consumerism, denials, documentation demands, and poor integration, Healthcare Finance managing editor Beth Jones Sanborn says.

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Leveraging Your Data

A comprehensive scheduling system collects a great deal of data regarding patient behaviors. It can answer questions surrounding when, where, how, and why patients schedule or cancel appointments, what types of patients are likely to schedule appointments at which times, and more, says Mark Byers, CEO of DSS, Inc.

This data can only benefit healthcare providers if they use it. "Improving hospital operational efficiency through data science boils down to applying predictive analytics to improve planning and execution of key care-delivery processes, chief among them resource utilization, staff schedules, and patient admittance and discharge," writes Sanjeev Agrawal, president of healthcare and CMO at LeanTaaS.

For outpatient healthcare providers, similar concerns exist. The use of analytics can play a key role in improving how resources are used, seeing patients efficiently, and ensuring that both patient and staff schedules run smoothly.

A study in the 2017 AMIA Annual Symposium Proceedings Archive found that electronic health record (EHR) information could be productively analyzed to improve outpatient clinic scheduling templates. A scheduling system that connects seamlessly to the EHR system has the data necessary for analyses that can improve the quality of healthcare while reducing its costs.

Leveraging patient data can also help capture referrals that might otherwise be lost. According to Lance Fusacchia, CFO of MyHealthDirect, up to one-third of patients never follow through on their referral. That represents a significant loss of revenue.

When a scheduling system is well-designed, connects to other major systems, and provides analytics, the system becomes a powerful force for more effective practice management, says Mark Mullarkey, senior vice president at HealthCatalyst.

Security and Privacy Tools

Patient privacy and data security rank higher than cost of care among patient concerns, says Fred Donovan at HealthITSecurity. Meanwhile, concerns about data security and privacy have hindered the adoption of many tools that could improve the delivery of healthcare, including fully functional scheduling platforms that integrate with other legacy systems, note Thora A. Johnson and Jami Vibbert at Venable.

One important privacy and security tool in any scheduling system is the ability to limit user capabilities based on user type, says Amy Vant, a doctor of physical therapy and clinical director of outpatient physical therapy. For instance, front desk staff may be able to schedule appointments only, while medical assistants may have access both to the patient's medical records and to the scheduling system. "This feature helps reduce the likelihood of breaking any privacy and security measures," Vant says.

Scheduling systems have indeed come a long way since the days of paper calendars. Yet rapid advances in technology, coupled with the intense privacy needs of healthcare, have posed challenges as well.

When a scheduling system is thoughtfully tailored to a practice's existing systems and its needs, however, it can help improve patient care, reduce lost revenue, and provide information without compromising privacy.

With PokitDok's Patient Access solutions, healthcare providers can offer modern commerce experiences that allow consumers to search, schedule, and pay for services online. With white-label front-ends, real-time medical benefits verification, seamless EHR scheduling integrations, and PCI-compliant payments, PokitDok has everything necessary to build and deploy quickly.

Images by: nevodka/©123RF Stock Photo, pachaileknettip/©123RF Stock Photo, wklzzz/©123RF Stock Photo

The opinions expressed in this blog are of the authors and not of PokitDok's. The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice.

  Tags: Health Innovation